In business, sorry is the hardest word

LAST week technology giant AOL revealed that it is planning to close or sell the social networking site Bebo, which it bought for $850m just two years ago. It’s fair to say that was an expensive error. Everybody makes mistakes in business – even if they hopefully don’t end up costing you the best part of a billion dollars.

But you have to give AOL credit for putting their hands up. Admitting that you have made a mistake is one of the hardest things to do.

Promoting somebody before they are ready, restructuring a team in the wrong way, or just making the wrong call on a trade – it all happens, and it can be tempting to go into denial. So what can you do to minimise the damage? And how do you deal with mistakes, and own up to them without losing face?

Ceri Roderick, partner at business psychologists Pearn Kandola

DECISIONS involving people – hiring or promoting, for example – are always probabilistic, and human beings are generally hopeless at calculating probabilities. The complexities mean that you can never be sure that you have made the right decision, all you can do is weigh things up as carefully as you can. So mistakes happen. Accept it. Once you realise that you have made a mistake you have three options: you can cover it up; give it more time; or admit you were wrong, be decisive and try something else.

Self-knowledge is important here. Remember some people have a very strong tendency to look for evidence that the original decision was right. You might say: “Well, they are hopeless at X, but then again they are good at Y”. Other people tend to see the glass as perpetually half-empty, to look for perfection and consider anything else a failure. We all look for validation. Being objective is very hard and the way you see things – and react to things – is largely down to personality types.

How other people see your mistakes is also related to risk. A huge risk that worked out badly might bring into question your judgement. Before you make decisions think about how much personal creditworthiness you have. If you have good relationships then you might take more risks. If you have less, that might make you more risk-averse. But are you risk-averse because you are naturally anxious, or because you have had failures? Or are you taking a risk because you think it’s your last chance? The way your mistakes are viewed is related to the context in which you took the decision.

John Timpson, author of Upside Down Management

IN business, you don’t lose respect by making mistakes, you lose respect by not saying sorry when you realise that you have made them. The worst thing is to stick to a decision when everybody knows that it was the wrong one. That can only cause you damage.

Delay is another thing that people always disrespect. Everybody at your workplace always knows a lot more than you realise and they are more than conscious when there is a problem. The quicker you stand up and say: “I screwed up”, the quicker your team will respect you.

Dealing with people is the hardest thing in any business – things like changing suppliers are easy, but to turn round to the person next to you and say sorry is tough.

If you have promoted somebody or moved somebody to a new team and it isn’t working out then you just have to send them back to the job they had before, and talk about it with them. Whatever HR people say, there’s no substitute for a heart-to-heart chat. Written warnings and things like that are not productive. If you go down that route you have broken the relationship with that person and you might end up in an employment tribunal.

Mistakes happen, that’s a fact of life. You can’t do yourself any harm by actually being honest and putting whatever you have done wrong right.

If you deal with a mistake promptly and honestly and you still find that it ends up weakening you, then there is something else going on. In that case, you are best off moving somewhere else.